TD, CTE and Me

For a football running back, one of the greatest and most electrifying to watch, what could be better than having the initials “TD”? When I first started paying attention to

Just a kid in college, with a nation (or two) watching him run.

Tony Dorsett, he was a skinny freshman tailback for the University of Pittsburgh Panthers. Skinny, yes, but also shocking in the ease of his changes of pace and direction, all that effortless speed and the instinct to elude. He made defenders disappear.

Yes, but only sometimes. You don’t win Heisman Trophies as the best in American college football, and you don’t churn through a Hall of Fame career in the brutal territory of the National Football League, without massive numbers of massive collisions with massive, furiously destructive opponents. Now, Touchdown Tony is a 59-year-old husband and father whose family sometimes hasn’t known what to make of him. He has been moody, sometimes upbeat but too often morose or scarily angry, and he tells of one day being unable to remember the way to take his young daughters to a practice he’d chauffeured for many a time. He tells of dark thoughts, but doesn’t want anyone to think he’ll hurt himself any more than his chosen profession already has.

He went looking for answers. The doctors at UCLA figured it out, but what does he do with this knowledge? Although a conclusive diagnosis, as I understand it, can’t be made until the brain is sectioned and stained and microscopically examined – that is, post-mortem – Dorsett now believes that he has Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,

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The Dulling of One Shining NCAA Moment

It’s possible, just possible, that I may be growing up. (And I’m not sure I like it.) Maybe it’s because I was by myself. I hadn’t loaded up well on munchies. The couch was a bit substandard, as was the amount of suspense – it was over before it was over. But I think it’s mostly me. I didn’t enjoy the NCAA final, the April dénouement to a March of Madness, like I used to in the good ol’ days…

…when Duke or UCLA won…
…when I loved Billy Donovan as a player (before disliking him as a coach)…
…when Billy Packer seemed to offer actual insights into the game…
…when players celebrated a good play with their teammates rather than by themselves, hoping for face-time and 15 seconds of micro-fame…
…and maybe, just maybe, before my extended adolescence finished its 20-year run.

It’s getting harder and harder to stand the commercials. (Especially when Coach K is prostituting his coaching art to hawk cars. Coach, how do you talk about leadership and trust to players who can finish the spiel for you? Absolutely, Coach. That’s why Chevy is the best-selling brand in America!) Except for sport, I don’t watch much network or cable TV, so the firestorm of selling sneaks up on me at times. I suppose, television being one of my most fertile plots of pessimism, that we’re not going to have fewer commercials. But surely the NCAA could reconsider whether teams should have the same number of timeouts available when there’s one coming every four minutes of PT anyway! The live experience of a nationally televised game must be numbing. (It must be like watching an NBA game, with lower sideline production values.) Two thirty-second timeouts per game, one full TO for the last two minutes. Other ‘n that, coaches, you’re at the mercy of the network! (Aren’t we all?)

I’m also finding it harder to ignore the “student-athlete” hypocrisy. Joakim Noah actually mentioned studying in a post-game interview, and my eyes brightened. Wow! You don’t hear that often! I was obviously grasping at an idealistic straw, since he was saying he wouldn’t be doing any. (Still, doesn’t that imply that he does sometimes? See the good, buddy. See the good.) It’s getting harder to enjoy Dick Enberg’s truncated and oddly desperate halftime essay. (Was it your heart that wasn’t in it, Dick, or was it mine?) Stubborn loyalist (doomed addict) that I am, I stayed glued right through the traditional tournament summary “One Shining Moment”, though its clichéd collection of super-hyped images and sentimental pop hasn’t moved me in years. I was hoping.

(See the good.) But at least until the game was over and the microphones came out, it was very hard not to like Joakim Noah. He’s one of the most gifted, interesting and intelligent players I’ve seen in a long time. I hope he and his buddies stick around for another year. I hope UCLA’s guard duo, Farmar and Afflalo, does the same. Come next March, God help me, I’ll almost certainly be watching again.

Tournament Time

It’s March Break for all the school kiddies, and I still feel like taking a week off. I spent a lot of years desperate for the break from the chalk-stained grind of teaching. I’d have put away my whistle by now, too, because high school ball was finished. Provincial championships were decided last Friday (and who won? I can’t believe how clueless I am these days). The days are longer and brighter and the ice and snow are melting furiously.

But the biggest sign of spring is good ol’ March Madness, the NCAA tournament back with all its hoary old stories that I can’t get enough of: the grizzled old coach faces his protégé, the little-known mid-major David faces the big-time razzle-dazzle Goliath, the hard-luck athlete triumphs over his disadvantaged background…(and who knows, he may even graduate one fine day!)

As much as I love Davids — the teams I coached were generally composed of skinny or lead-footed underdogs with slingshot dreams — I’m pulling for Duke. People say they’re the Evil Empire, that they’re the Yankees, for cryin’ out loud, but I don’t see them that way. They’re good because they’re GOOD, because Mikey recruited ’em good and made ’em better. They play hard. They play together. They graduate. And besides, I Was A Teenage Blue Devil, and later coached for years at that same small-town high school. (“Devils Rule!” was our football team’s favourite slobbering victory chant, which might have been a bit disturbing to our local church elders; thank God nobody paid much attention to high school sports! Whew.) In ’01, I went to a fall coaches’ clinic at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where we could watch the Dookies practice and then hear from Coach K and the boys about what they were trying to accomplish. Their practices were tough, disciplined, ferociously competitive and surprisingly profane.

American college athletics is a deeply hypocritical institution, in many ways, and the abuses in the name of big-time sport are easy to find and may be getting worse. But Lord help me, I still love it. And I’ll be trying to find televisions that receive the Tournament, which my home-rigged antenna most emphatically won’t. (We get TVOntario’s sweet and heady offerings, and the local French stations come in pretty well, thanks.)

And I don’t forget the CIS Nationals. The playing levels and, especially, the TV production values are much higher in the Excited States, but I’ll still be paying attention to the Canadian championships. I’ll be conflicted. My alma mater, McMaster, and its terrific coach Joe Raso will be trying to shed their bridesmaid status; they’ve won four CIS silver medals in his 14 years, so they’re in Vikings/Bills territory. Go, Marauders! If they play Carleton, the team I follow closest now, The Dynasty That Came From Nowhere (or perhaps the Smart family driveway), I can’t lose, I guess. Coach Dave is after his fourth consecutive title, and his teams are astoundingly focused. Go, Ravens!

Yes, and Go, Duke, too! And if the UCLA Bruins meet them in the Final Four, a hinted return to the glory days under John R. Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood and my hero, then I will be a little twisted up for that one, too. Go, Bruins! Go, Everybody! (Cripe, Syracuse even has a Canadian kid, Leo Rautins’s son, so I may even have to pull for the Orange a little. Yecch. But not Florida. Can’t stoop that far.)

And while we’re at it, God bless all the countries…